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Travelling to the Sahara is usually a gruelling experience involving much dust, discomfort and private self-examination. It is not to be considered by the faint-hearted, even Ibn Battouta (who had travelled the seven seas and had taken tea with every Muslim sovereign in the four continents) decided to head immediately home for Morocco after his first taste of Saharan hospitality � a bowl of porridge.

Air France has changed all that. You can now look out through a port window over thousands of miles of stunning desert landscape while you sip champagne, enjoy a little chilled ros� with your lunch after which coffees and brandies flow inexorably towards your table with a cheerful, non-judgemental ease. As we coasted down to Niamey airport into the late afternoon light, I wondered why it had taken me so long to get to Niger. I had been waiting, it seemed, for at least 20 years. Why? Travelling these days was clearly a doodle.

All that is needed is someone with a bit of oomph to set you on your way. Someone like Tim Best who had rung me up one day in July asking me to drop around the office as there was somebody he thought I would like to meet. Over an unfurled Michelin 953 map, I found him talking animatedly to Celine Boileau and Akly Joulia. Two hours later I had signed up for a journey into the Air mountains of the Sahara.

Steeping outside the door of flight AF 0774 Paris C De Gaulle to Niamey I fondly imagined that the wall of heat � like walking into a hair dryer set for melt-down - was coming from the jet exhaust. I was wrong, it was just another sunny day in the capital of Niger.

Our little group of five travellers met up at the immigration desk queue and then quickly piled in their baggage into an open-top jeep. Fortunately there was no spare seat, so I clambered on top of the bags and let the hot wind blow right through me. Our contact, a local French businessman called Jaques Le Cour, understood the importance of first impressions. He drove us into town along a back road, so we could watch out over the Niger: the neat little black pirogues that nipped across its channels, the silent drifts of water weed and river-banks filled with women washing bright-hued clothes.

Our hotel, the Grand Niamey, was number 2 in the capital. It was perched on a terrace with a superb view over the river and the cities principal bridge. We arrived in time to have a swim and then catch the social hour as poolside tables filled-up with expatriate businessmen and elegant Nigeri�n women who conducted their flirtations over the mobile telephone. A pair of jaded barmen served the local brew, Biere Niger, while to another side of the pool a chef fanned away at a charcoal brazier to provide brochette aperitifs. As the setting sun transformed the river Niger into a mirror of burnished gold Jacques reappeared with a girlfriend, Mme Daouda, to whisk us off to a local restaurant. She took control of the menu so that we feasted on capitaine (the local Niger perch) cooked with ginger, surrounded by a wonderful spread of vegetable dishes: things like manioc, sweet onions, plantain, sweet potato, jasmine flavoured rice and Ibn Battouta�s pet hate, millet porridge - which I found I had no problems with. More bottles flowed. We made an evening of it, aware that for the rest of the trip, we would be leaving the cuisine of �West Africa�for the more restricted diet of the Sahara.

It had been a perfect day. The night was terrifying. I woke up in the middle of it, possessed by an alarming static of neurotic energy. I literally jumped out of bed, taken-over by a furious restlessness that sent me pacing up and down the bedroom like a madman and then out and around and around the hotel grounds. I then launched myself into the calming water of the pool and swam up and down, trying to exhaust myself back towards sleep, watched only by the moon and a bemused security guard doing his rounds. By the time we all met up again for the 5 am appointment for breakfast, I looked impressively clean and was just beginning to feel less manickly wide-awake. It may have been the first sign of an incipient break-down or perhaps a Djinn �educated in the hard old school of desert travel � thought I was getting a bit complacent and needed a bit of possessing. Never again I hope.

We left an hour before dawn, for the journey north-east from Niamey to Agadez would take at least 12 hours of driving � without counting the stops. There is some talk of a future connecting flight, though the major customer (the French-run Uranium mine) already run their own private service and if tourism does grow, it will probably result in direct charter flights from France to Agadez. This gruelling overland journey will soon be biappased, but I would not have missed it, for it was an education in itself.

Niamey boasts traffic police in California-like road bikes, their immaculately sharp uniforms lit up by the sodium glare of street lights. Then just a few miles out of the capital the nation slips down a gear - or four, into Niger of the villages. This was a completely traditional landscape of earth-built compounds surrounded by egg box clusters of domed granaries. Exuberantly decorated facades are usually associated with a mosque. The village police if that was what they were � who stopped us at the frequent road blocks � seldom wore a uniform while I noticed that their road block-barriers were composed of knotted rags strung between two sand filled oil barrels. Out of the capital the budget didn�t stretch to rope, though their guns all looked in convincingly good order. In the countryside the millet had been harvested, the domed granaries were full and the women were hard at work, seemingly a third washing, a third fetching water, and the other third pounding millet under the welcome shade of giant trees. It was a stunningly visual show in the early morning light and as I was travelling with two professional photographers we stopped a lot.

They knew their job, talking, chatting and charming their subjects into being photographed without posing. They also kept to an admirable, and entirely self-imposed system of ethics. Always asking permission (in sign language more often than not) and stoutly refusing to hand over cash pay money but offered something in return, like an instantly developing Polaroid snapshot. I begun to wish they would photograph me.

Like neighbouring Mali to her west, Niger is not a nation state defined by one language and one race, but a Commonwealth of peoples. The ruling ethnic group are the Djerma, who have traditionally been farmers and warriors concentrated in the agricultural land around the Niger river, akin to the ruling Bambara of modern Mali. Like the Bambara they are the basic black warrior stock from which all the great Muslim Empires of West Africa were formed: such as Ghana, Mali and Songhai. Presidents, generals and most of the cabinet ministers and colonels in Niger are likely to be of the Djerma. Niamey is their city.

However by the time we had made our second midday coffee stop, perched on open-air wooden benches, looking at the petrol station (a row of old Haig whisky bottles filled up with petrol and sealed with paper screws on the next-door bench) we were inching into Hausa-land. The Hausa are another fascinatingly self-contained African people, neither negroe, nor Arab, nor Tebu but a distant branch of the so-called Hamitic (or Afro-Asiatic) people which includes Ethiopians, Berbers and ancient Egyptians � a list of practically all my heroes. They first really emerge into historical focus with the first descriptive reports that trickle back across the Sahara in the 15th century, though it is clear that their sophisticated society must have been in existence for centuries before that. They were especially renowned for their skills as weaver and tanners and for their city-based confederacy of seven states. Like the Berbers of North Africa they are known for an uncomplicated, open and honest style of life which is combined with such a passion for trading that Haussa has become the lingua franca of merchants over a wide area of central Africa. Over half the population of Niger speak Hausa while an even greater number exist in the northern states of Nigeria. As we edged near the Niger-Nigeria border, I realised that one was entering yet another of those absurd colonial frontiers, zones drawn up against all geographical, racial and linguistic common sense. Dividing an ancient people into two and based on nothing more than a horse race in 1900, between French and British officials, as to who was to control the most territory.

The border town of Birnin-Konni was alive with business and with a patient line of trucks waiting to cross the customs post of the border. Sacks of millet, cascades of sweet onions, tomatoes and what looked like cones of sugar, made up the bulk of carrying-trade that morning. It is also the habitual stop-point, on the Niamey to Agadez road. All travellers pull into Le Relais of Konni (BP 66, tel 640338) for cold beers, plates of couscous, rice, chicken or grilled meat with prolonged bargaining sessions with the half dozen resident Hausa traders. I came away with a pocketful of Hausa �crosses� and some heavy old copper ankle brancelets which I hoped dated back to the time when copper formed the coinage of bartering.

From there the long road heads north to the town of Tahoua, whose great Sunday market draws together both Hausa farmers, Tuareg traders and Peul herdsman. About 30km north we risked the patience of our driver by again asking to stop and wander through the very pretty Haussa village of Barmou whose cluster of domed granaries proving irresistibly photogenic. So too was the great lake of Tabalak, drawing together vast herds who come to water here beside great flocks of migrant birds, storks, pelicans and what looked like egrets and falmingoes.

The border town of Abalak was 135km north from the lake. This marks the southern edge of Hausa land and the cultivation of millet. Like every border zone there are tensions beneath the seemingly equitable mix of peoples in the market place. It was in this region, at Tchintabaraden, that the infamous massacre of the Tuareg by military units in May 1990 helped spark off the Tuareg rebellion.

North of Abalak the arid steppe is the particular range of the Peul nomads (also known as the Fulani) though they can be found in lesser density throughout Niger. The Peul herds are gorgeous to behold. The herdsmen are an immediately distinctive sight, tall, incredibly self-contained and dignified figures crowned with their conical broad-rimmed hats (which look almost Chinese at first sight). We made the driver stop and walked for a companionable half-hour with two herdsman, striding along at the head of their great mass of long horned cattle. For those who have long stared at Saharan rock art, walking with a Peul heard, is like watching those millennia old images come bursting into life. I have been warned however, not to get too attached to this idea, for Saharan rock art is almost certainly the product of a Nilo-Saharian people while the Peul are Afro-Asiatic. Their origins are wrapped up in legends that trace them back to the Prophets of old. In recent history (well the last five hundred years or so) they seem to have exploded out of Senegal to almost entirely dominate the pre-Saharan steppe-land from the Atlantic to the shores of Lake Chad. In the late 18th-century the Peul burst into great prominence as leaders of the jihad against French expansion from the coast at Senegal. By 1800 there were half a dozen such �Peul Jihad� states though the most spectacular was that created by Usman dan Fodio who united Peul mobility with Hausa know-how to create the central African Empire of Sokoto which stretched over most of modern Nigeria and Niger. Sokoto remained the central authority in the region until three French military columns (one from Algeria, one from the Congo and one from Senegal) terrorized the region in 1900. I now wish to become more Fulani aware and have been told that a descendant of one of the leading �jihad� families, Amadou Hampat� B� (who wrote Wangrins Destiny and Amkoulel) is one of the greatest literary voices of West Africa..

As we travelled on through the dusk and deep into the night, the only stops were those enforced by the military check points.

I awoke in Agadez the following morning to the sound of the morning prayers, tucked up in a comfortable bed, with my own bathroom and vaulted ceiling. I slipped briefly back into sleep and emerged when breakfast was being served outside in an enchanting garden-courtyard. Over coffee I began to recall our arrival last night. A cascade of welcomes and then a late supper and beers served up on the roof beneath the stars and surrounded by the lights of the city of Agadez.

Agadez is the seat of the last of the great Tuareg monarchs to survive into the modern world. The four traditional kingdoms of the nomadic Tuareg were all centred on mountain ranges within the central Sahara: the Tassili, the Hoggar, the Adrar and Air. The Sultan of Agadez was the ruler of the mountains of Air, and is the only one left in possession of his palace. He has no formal position in modern Niger, though as a symbol and as an arbitrator, he retains an important role. The town, so often reviled in the accounts of desert travellers, for its rapacious merchants and commission scouts, seemed totally enchanting in the early morning light � though we were admittedly in the safe hands of a native guide. The old centre of the town is composed of the great mosque (with its famous 27 metre high minaret, studded with protruding branches) and the old market square beside which stands the Sultans house. One or two members of the royal bodyguard, dressed in showy robes of white, red and green ornamented with printed figures and a gorgeous turban, usually patrol outside. Within the compound, the Sultan continues the old Islamic traditions with a household of four wives and more than a dozen children. I watched discreetly as a side door opened and one of his daughters emerged and strolled elegantly off to college with a bag of books at her side.

In the morning light her modesty, beauty and pride, would have converted even Ibn Battouta to a love of all things Saharan. However I later found out that he could never have walked through the dusty streets of Agadez. For in his day Tagedda (now a total ruin) remained one of the great centres of the medieval Saharan trade. Ibn Battouta stayed there in 1353 in the house of a Cadi, and reported on the great annual caravans despatched north to Cairo and Ghadames and south to Bornu. The Tangier traveller clearly felt at home in Tagedda, which had its own quarter of resident merchants from North Africa and a circle of literate scholars. The Sultan of the day was a perfect model of a Tuareg nobleman, who rode without a saddle, dressed in blue robes with a magnificent blue turban and preferred to live in the desert rather than in the town, his tent companionably pitched between that of his sister and his mother. Ibn Battouta was welcomed with gifts of camel milk from the Sultans mother and a roast sheep from out of the Sultans tent.

Our hosts in Agadez were Celine Boileau and Akly Joulia who have been slowly converting Akly�s mothers old house in the centre of Agadez into a small but wonderful hotel. The Auberge d�Azel has a dozen or so bedrooms and now spreads over three interconnecting courtyards, with Celine and Akly�s family contained within another, backing onto an enclosed yard for their vehicles. They have been running a travel business for the last five years, taking visitors north into the Tuareg Air mountains. Their knowledge and understanding of the region is extraordinary and intimate. Celine first came to the region in the 80�s when working for the charity CARE, but as I got to know her better it seemed clear that she was also following a family tradition of oversees service. Her father had worked as an agricultural adviser in Chad in the 50�s and later in the Congo, while a great uncle had worked as the doctor in the oasis of Bilma. She probably knew more about the Tuareg rebellion (from June 1990 to the truce of 1996) than one would like to hear - but like everybody else that I talked to, was determinedly putting her back to the past and concentrating on the future. Only when I left did I find out she was also the French Vice-Consul at Agadez. Her husband Akly was a trained pilot and is a keen geologist like his French father. His mother is a Tuareg, but she had typically grown tired of the bustle of town life and had set up camp in a good position a few miles out of town. There she could look after her grand-children, keep an eye on her herds, while good clean, delicious tasting water ran just a few metres beneath the gravel beds of the wadhi floor. Helping her water the goats on our return from the mountains was one of the highlights of my trip to Niger. Akly joked that his clan was the Goumessan, for his own Tuareg grand-father had served under the French as a Goumier in the Camel Corps.

We left the auberge in mid-morning, taking the good fast road that runs from Agadez towards the Uranium mine at Arlit. This mine clearly under-writes the entire visible cash-economy of northern Niger. They have even opened up a coal-mine to provide a reliable source of non-nuclear power for the mine compound � which Agadez is allowed to share. We quickly left these geo-political realities behind when we struck east, off the tarmac. Our first halt was at a shallow well whose gravel banks were being re-dug to allow easier access for the camels. One herd was being watered, while another waited patiently but noisily for its turn. A timeless Saharan scene to place beside the uranium-age.

Our real destination of the day were the 18 foot tall rock-art giraffes at Dabous. Despite being the most-photographed, talked about and reproduced examples of rock art in the Sahara, nothing can actually diminish the excitement of coming across them for yourself, They are also now well cared for. Not wrapped up in shelters, confined within a barbed-wire enclosure and a ticket kiosk (thank God) but looked-after by a pair of well-informed Tuareg herdsmen who were very strict about not allowing anybody to walk over the worked bed-rock. The giraffes are exquisite, fashioned from a deep, polished engraving into the living rock. Their number, jumbled proximity to each other and �verticality� was a surprise. For they are engraved into a sloping face of rock that seems to be collectively offered up to the sun � as it were- rather than on a horizontal �gallery� frame suitable for human viewing. In all other ways they seemed artistically and imaginatively akin to the great gallery of rock art along the Wadhi Mathendush in the Messak Mettafat area of Libya�s Akakus mountains. At the moment the Dabous engravings are a unique outcrop in Niger of what is known as �Early Hunter Art� � provisionally dated to between 5,000 and 8,000 years ago. �Early Hunter Art� is principally concerned with great, wild animals; such as Elephants, Crocodiles, Rhino though the Giraffe had an especially important role. Historians have suggested that they were a key element in a fertility cult and have interpretated the curious lines (that link the beautifully drawn beasts to small human forms) as lines of power. Others see these lines to be illustrating a sacrifice, the blood of the slowly slaughtered giraffe, being shed as a magical precursor to the awaited rains. Like all great art they are clearly magical. So it appears is the whole site, though there is nothing physical that marks out this particular outcrop of rock from any other. However the rounded boulders and rock faces in the immediate vicinity are covered with lesser works from many subsequent ages � some 300 have been identified � though in truth most of these would have remained invisible to me in the midday sun if it was not for the skill of the local guides. It is no small part of the sites charm that the very first human engravings and so incomparably better executed and better preserved than all the subsequent art of the succeeding millennia.

Three traditional palm-fibre tents stand to one side of the Dabbous site, in which the guides and visitors can shelter, picnic and take a shaded rest from the midday sun.

The use of tents is an important sub category within the Tuareg of Niger. The Tuareg of the Air mountains, the Kel-Air, use shelters, while the Kel-Tallaq (just like the Fulani herdsman) have no need for them. Dabous stands near the border between these two major tribal groupings of Tuareg whose different traditions may relate back to a medieval land grabbing. Rock art has left a record of most of the great historical migrations to affected the Sahara. The Early Hunters were replaced, or transformed into the pastoralists about 6,000 years ago. These Nilo-Saharian�s were later joined by negroe farmers of a Neolithic agrarian culture who cultivated sorghum, millet and melons. Some time around 1,500 BC lighter skinned Berber tribes pushed down into the Air mountains from the north � the so-called Garamantes of the Libyan Sahara with their horse-drawn chariots. Around about the time of Christ, single armed warriors and the use of Tifinagh script identify the population as Tuareg. There ethnicity reinforced by later migrations between 800-1200 AD when the Air mountains may have fallen into the possession of new Tuareg tribes. This is the time when the Tuareg Sultanate of the Air was formed, based at first on the Saharan trading centre of Tagedda and in the 15th century on the city of Agadez. Tuareg political authority was highly elastic. The royal family was chosen from an outsider dynasty, a family of scholar saints from the neighbouring mountain kingdom of Adrar (modern Mali) so that the Sultans were both independent, but also dependent on the four powerful tribes of the region. The Sultan must also have been able to bend with the wind, co-operating with the powerful Hause states and allying themselves to the great West African Empires, like when the Emperor Muhammed Askia of Songhai passed through Agaded in 1495 on his pilgrimage to Mecca via Cairo.

Slowly the sleeping forms around me stirred, especially after the first whiff of freshly brewed tea could be smelled cutting through the siesta. To like this heady brew, very different from the mild mint-flavoured green tea of Morocco, is a slow process. I cannot repeat with any conviction the legend of Tuareg Tea: The first glass is bitter like death, the second glass is sweet like life, the third glass is good like love.

The afternoon was spent crossing the rough, broken country to the west of the Air mountains. We made good progress reaching the celebrated mountain oasis of Iferouane just before dusk. The mud walls glowed with the colours of sunset and the park-like scatering of acacia trees were back lit by the dusk. To the east of this enchanted settlement � first described to a European audience by Heinrich Barth - rise the central massifs of the Air. The valley is comparatively well-watered, supporting a number of small gardens tucked behind their anti-goat fences. Iferouane is one of the accepted heartlands of the Air, with a good school (where English alone in all of Niger is taught) , a small Museum (Centre Artisanal et Muse d�Iferouane) and a good density of smiths � that supposedly despised guild of hereditary craftsmen � who yet in terms of commerce, conversation, music and general animation � add so greatly to the joys of Tuareg life. It also has the one hotel in the entire mountain range, a small earth-built structure of half a dozen bedrooms, with some cane chairs were a foreigner may sip a beer while waiting for dinner to be cooked. It is one of the three structure to have been built by an emigree Italian, Victorrio, who with the industry of his nation (and assisted by his Taureg wife) has also established an ice-cream salon in Agadez and the Pillier restaurant in Niamey. While we ate, the sound of tom toms and drums slowly gathered apace. The smiths, resplendent in the full panoply of Tuareg costume, had organised a dance in a dusty street that backed onto the hotel kitchen. Young men hurled themselves into the affray � with a zeal that would have had them dismissed as young punks elsewhere � but here won them the approval of their elders and the attention of the women. Akly later translated some of the lyrics, that evoked the terrible struggles of the recent Tuareg rebellion. This began with a military massacre in June 1990 and quickly escalated with the arbitrary detention of the 500 leading Tuareg citizens of Agadez over that July and August. By the winter the rebellion had spread throughout the region with garrisons in the few settlements, with some families fleeing into neighbouring Algeria and Libya while the young fighters took to the hills.

A hundred years before there had been the even greater cataclysm of the French invasion. In October 1898 the French Foureau-Lamy military expedition marched south out from the oasis of Biskra, their munitions, rations and equipment borne by a caravan of over 1,000 camels. On February 24th, having crossed the Hoggar, they staggered into the oasis of Iferouane. Though still an imposing quantity of men, the march had taken its toll, especially on their inadequately cared-for camels. As the force rested in the oasis, the Tuareg began to realise that the imposing expedition had ground to a halt through lack of mounts, for over half the camels had now died. The French commander demanded a levy of 500 camels from his hosts but the Tuareg played for time to test the strength of the invaders. On March 8th two French soldiers were killed which served as the prelude for an all out attack organised for dawn on the 12th March. A dust storm rising 400 metres from the French camp signalled the advance of 500 Tuareg warriors. When they got to within 200 metres the French troops opened up fire, reinforced by grapeshot from the two artillery pieces that had been dragged across the Sahara. It was a massacre. Not one French soldier was so much as wounded, while the ground before them was littered with hundreds of dead and dying warriors. The flower of the warrior nobility of the Air. The victorious French then launched a series of raids deep into the Air mountains, trying to confiscate sufficient baggage animals to allow the march to continue. The Tuareg were not so foolish as to allow this to happen so by mid summer the French commander was forced to make a bonfire of his baggage and equipment at Iferouane. And then to push south in a series of forced marches of 25km a day � in mid-summer � to reach Agadez. In the words of Tacitus, �They make a wilderness and call it peace.�

The following morning was spent chatting, walking and bargaining with the smiths in and out of the museum and the oasis gardens. The rest of the day we moved slowly north and east, climbing through the bleak volcanic masses of the central Air massif. These massive black igneous extrusions, circled by sand, are decorated with immense boulders improbably balanced and polished by the Saharan winds. The rains had been exceptionally good this autumn, and so although it looked exceptionally bleak to our eye - the familiar absolute duality of Saharan black stone and yellow sand - the drivers and guides chattered on about how the grazing had never been so good. Sometimes looking up a long vista of a wadhi floor you could indeed catch a faint haze of green from the meagre shrubs. It was in just such an environment that we caught sight of my first confirmed gazelle siting in the Sahara (after decades of looking) which was then repeated, and culminated with spotting a group of three which moved elegantly up a wadhi before determinedly heading uphill into the rock strewn slopes which no jeep could follow.

Late in the afternoon we stopped to allow me to explore what looked like a great cairn that stretched down half a hillside. In a North African environment one would have hazarded a guess that it was a Berber pre-Islamic tomb. But these pegs no longer had any revelance in this environment. Akly assured me it was a great collective tomb that dated back 8,000 years and indeed once your eye was sharpened for the particular shapes left by these monuments of undressed stone I identified more and more of them in this now totally forbidding environment. Celine and Akly were encyclopaedic in their knowledge, but had the wit to respond to enthusiasm rather than release a flood of statistics. My note book is full of disjointed scribbles made in the jeep as we talked and bumped our way across the desert floor,. Entries such as �find reference to Dominique Casajus, and his translations of contemporary Tamasheq verse/lyrics. �Conrad Killian, pioneering geologist of the 30�s, first to ascend summit of Greboun � the Air table top peak � did he leave description? Frenchman Ren�e Frisson-Roche thought he had been first to ascend Greboun until he found an old sardine tin on the summit � of his English predecessor.� �Only one Tuareg family known to habitually camp in the Saharan wilderness north of Greboun.� �Jacques Gamdimi, reprints old French Sahara books and wrote guide to Libya��

This is followed by my scribbled account of Akly�s Gitane fag-end story which I would not have believed had it come from any other mouth than his. His French father, who explored much of this area as a geologist, was also a scrupulous map-maker. He was always careful to identify each feature by its traditional Tuareg name. One day his guides, exhausted by this linguistic scholarship were at their wits end. This place they assured him has no name, in either Tamasheq, Hausa, Peul or Arabic. It has never had a name. No one has ever bothered to come here before you. So Akly�s father solemnly extinguished his cigarette in the sand and named the spot �Gitane� after his favourite brand. It has since been adopted by the Tuareg and now suitably appears in local parlance on the Michelin maps as, In-Jitane.

That evening our squadron of three vehicles drew up in the lee of one of the miracles of the desert - a broken outcrop of blue marble that emerges out of the sand dunes � The Blue Mountain. As the tents were pitched, the fire was kindled, and a table was being laid-out we climbed this small peak. To the south we surveyed wide sandy valleys, to the west the distinctive table-top mountain summit of the Air, while to the east we had our first glimpse at one of the worlds most awesome sights. The Tenere, the desert within the desert. The absolute Sahara, sometimes known as The Garden of Allah, a place where God can walk undisturbed by mankind. By the time we returned to the camp, the table had been dressed with a row of bottles and Akly was offering his guests either a Ricard, a gin, a whisky and soda or an iced bottle of beer. For dinner we sat around a table and sipped at Red Wine that had come across the border from Algeria. After dinner mint tea was served on mats beside the fire. Wilfrid Thesiger and Michael Asher would not have been impressed, but we were all delighted, and also by the washing bowls of water that had thoughtfully placed beside each tent. After dinner I disdained by elegant little tent so that I could fall asleep in the open air looking at the stars, the flickering fire and the whispered stories of the drivers.

In the dawn light Akly and I climbed back up the Blue Marble mountain to catch a whisper of the singing sands and on the way back he pointed out to me - the tell tale sand trails of a foraging beetle, the broken S marks of yesterdays snake, the neat hoppity prints of a gerbil and the hurried cat-like prints, arranged in patterns of three, left by the fennec, the bat-eared fox, in the night. I asked about the old healers who could read the future in the patterns of the sand. Akly later showed me a diabolic script etched in the sand � and its creator, a thorn branch that had been twirled along by the wind, leaving behind a set of wild arabesques and exotic hieroglyphs, before giving me the quiet smile of a sceptic. Over breakfast we discussed the origin of the word Tuareg. Some believe it is founded on an Arabic pejorative, Taraka, the abandoned or forgotten [of God]. Some see it as deriving from such old Berber tribal names as the Targa or Uraghen, while others think it might come from early Arab texts which define the people of the desert as Trq-Trg. However it is derived, I realised that the word Tuareg is probably not tip-top good manners. If you want to be completely PC, you should use Kel-Tamasheq, the people who speak Tamasheq or the people of the veil although their formal description of themselves - Imashaghen, �the noble and the free� - is probably over- doing it, especially from a foreigner.

Immediately below the Blue Marble mountain there was a gentle undulating plain where the wind had stripped away the covering of sand to reveal a baked clay and gravel. In the early light we could also see that it was dotted with old campfires. It took some time for it to sink onboard that we were not looking at yesterdays picnics but Neolithic hearths � completely undisturbed since they had been abandoned around 4,000 years ago. You could find around the hearths many pottery sherds - a friable thick earthenware decorated with zig-zags and swirls. Around one hearth the sherds were almost sufficient to completely re-assemble a pot of millet beer (or was it porridge again?) and there were also a scattering of stone rolling pins and stone �bread boards� which neatly fitted together to form a handmill for grain. Once your eye was focused it was soon possible to identify flint arrow heads. As a group we behaved impeccably, picking up only surface finds, examining and sometimes photographing them and then placing them exactly back where we had found them. Happily our cupidity was never tested by finding something as cherishable as a Neolithic polished axe head.

These finds continued all day. A day of child-like wonder: at the how and the where of it all. After a bit, and with Akly�s guidance one could begin to see the landscape as it must have appeared to these farmers. A wonderful scattering of lakes, surrounded by gently sloping prairie fields of grass and high old trees.

Now the rains come, when they come at all some time over July and August. It is not a season for first-time travellers. There can be extreme temperature shifts, suddenly plunging from 40 to 20 degrees, towering cloud formations and sudden violent half-hour rain storms that will briefly fill a wadhi with flowing, turbulent water while great lakes form � and as swiftly disappear. For an aficionado of the desert, it can however be a fascinating time. To observe the desert briefly flowering into scented meadows, and the people jubilant at the sight of their fattening flocks and herds. A land, albeit it briefly, of milk and honey. The visitor season in Niger begins in September with the Cure Salle festival at Ingal, a natural meeting point between the cattle-grazing Fulani and the Tuareg lands to the north. This festival has become bizarrely well known and most especially the well photographed young male dancers of the Wadabbe branch of the Fulani people � the unsung stars of many as popular Saharan TV travel programming such as narrated by Nick Middleton and Michael Pallin. The real season for foreign travel is from October to March, peaking in December with the festival De L�Air which is usually held around 27-29th December in Iferouane.

All day the horizon was dominated by the Adrar Chiret, an extraordinary massif which emerges straight out of the surrounding sand. This multi-peaked mountain of granite has summits formed from a mass of vertical chimneys � looking like the devil�s organ poised to blow the last trumpet out across the world. We skirted around it all day. Even Akly confessed that he had never camped near it, nor ever would.

South of Adrar Chiriet we reconnected with civilization � to the extent that we left behind the uninhabited band lands on the periphery of the Tenere and reached a region that was grazed by Tuareg nomads. Akly stopped to chat with one group, and a distant relationship was discovered which led to us spending the day with them, or rather watching and talking with the women as most of their veiled menfolk were off for the day. This was the Tuareg way, one of the women explained. They make a breakfast porridge of camel milk mixed with millet, then the men go off with the grazing camels or on longer journeys to bring things to the camp; such as wood and food from the markets. The women stay to care for the goats and the children surrounded by two or three tents filled with their cousins, sister-in-laws and their mother. During the rebellion they had to move from the comparatively good grazing on the wadhi to a harsh life in the mountains. �If we give our children to the school, they will not come back and help us with the goats, �she told us in response to a well meaning question about primary education. �Yes it was possible to go to the town� she agrred. She had gone once when she was sick but the moment she was better she was eager to leave, there was much too much noise, you need money to survive there, so much money indeed � she chuckled � �that you end up selling all your animals.� For this young Tuareg woman there was no choice between the town and the desert. Here in the Sahara it was possible to live a life full of openness, of respect for others, with dignity, restraint and good manners. She was particularly scornful of the table manners of the Hausa, who rushed to eat as if �they were stomachs�. When asked about her preference for men and what made a good husbdand, she told us that Turage woman looked for a man who had character rather than just good looks, for it was important to live together with agreement and the minimum of conflict. Her tent, a palm-woven structure, looked worthy of a queen with its great ornate Tuareg bed (Teddibut � I think) which to my historically obsessed mind, brought flickering similarities to the gilded couches preserved in the tombs of the Pharaohs. Infants she explained slept with their parents, then as young children they slept on mats around the bed and when they were older they slept outside the tent. She seemed very wise. The only question that really flummoxed her was about age, at what age does a boy take the veil, the Targuelmost (Litham in Arabic), at what age does a girl marry? It meant absolutely nothing to her. Hers was a culture innocent of birthday parties and �how old are you� questions. Boys took the veil when they became men, girls got married when they were ready. That was all. I made careful note of this, for it seemed to provide a quick and ready answer to an incident in the life of the Prophet Muhammad that I had long pondered over.

On camels she was completely decisive. White and pale camels are much preferred by the men as mounts, especially those which are swift moving, sleak and pleasant to the eye. Brown ones were likely to become humdrum beasts of burden. Black ones might have to fear the pot at an early age.

I had learned a lot. Later in the day we stopped at a Tuareg-smith run boutique � a charming hut full of bags of millet, some sugar and tea but with some items designed to appeal to the odd passing tourist. I am afraid we rather fell on this small display of crosses, slippers, wooden spoons and leather pouches. Though we all had clearly admired the dignity of the nomadic women, we had also clearly learned nothing: rushing to acquire the few portable objects of a monadic culture to bring back to our already possession filled houses. I think I heard Akly whisper �tourists� to his wife, and he was right. However the traditional leather slippers he helped me bargain for remain cherished � and just the thing for a summer camping holiday in the Hampshire meadows. I also felt that if I had to fit into Tuareg society there was no way that I could keep up with dignity and formality required of a traditional tribal herdsman. I would have to become a smith. I was glad to hear that this caste was not just restricted to blacksmithery, you could be a leather worker or a wood worker or a jeweller as well. While I also found out that the more restrained Tuareg relied on the smiths to say things that their formal manners would make impossible. They were also responsible for paying musicians, and the favourite music of the smiths was Takumba � a sort of lively rock and roll equivalent which was very popular at the first part of a marriage ceremony. More and more I felt that my essential nature was �tres forgerons.�

We camped on another spectacular ridge of dunes that night, perfectly sited so that we could look again onto the edge of the Tenere and catch a view of the gloomy silhouette of Adrar Chiriet and the now distant blue marble mountain.

The next day was tough, packed full of long hours of hard driving across twisting mountain tracks. It was a very different rugged landscape, and less picturesque than the etched black mountains, graceful wadhis, and golden sand dunes that we had traversed the previous three days. I was however delighted by it all. There was lots of opportunity for walking, while the vehicles made their slow progress or ahead along the track while the drivers paused for a well earned break. One such stop was at the lovely village of Tchintoulous still dominated by a giant Jujube tree where Heinrich Barth camped in 1850. Although it looked an incredibly safe place in which to hang out � and served as a sort of an open air caf� for the locals - Heinrich Barth was unclucky enough to got hit by some late rain here (in September) which swept away his baggage and his animals in a sudden flood. We also made it to the ruins of the Tuareg city of Assode � for me a near legendary site- in the near perfect conditions of an hour before dusk. Assode sits right square in the centre of the Air mountains. If the track that approaches it from the east was anything to go by, it occupied a near invincible state of isolation, protected by gorges, mountains and precipitous passes.

The site itself was beside a low-lying wadhi, the town perched just up on a terrace above the dry gravel bed of this occasional river. The ruins of this fabulous trading city had crumbled but it was still possible to make out the street pattern and most of the house-sites. A natural row of boulders formed a sort of perimeter to the city � though I noticed no evidence of any actual wall. The big ruin in the centre of the city was clearly the great Friday mosque. You could just identify the Mihrab niche and the first five covered aisles that had been roofed with palm trunks while behind them stretched the open-air Sahn courtyard. I was told two stories which helped explain the complete decline of the city that had so clearly been punished by God for some great sin. The first was that a great merchant had acquired 99 virgins and deflowered them all. A great sin indeed, and undoubtedly made more heinous by the blasphemy of the number 99 � otherwise restricted to the names of God. The second tale was about two proud city families joined together in marriage who decided to celebrate in a style that would never be forgotten. Instead of sprinkling the bridal chamber with clean sand, they spread wheat on the floor and instead of just sacrificing a bull camel to feast the guests, they decided to also sacrifice a slave. As we left the place at sunset we were not sad to moving on to another camp site. Amongst the glowing purples and reds of a Saharan sunset the silhouette of mount Ktrik, its peak formed from two horns, began to look very sinister.

Assode was still in existence in the 18th century as it features in the traditional oral Tuareg roll call of historical events with a famous inter-tribal battle fought here in 1713 while the city was later to be captured in 1741 after the battle of Sharsala. Some historians believe it was closely associated with the slave trade and was not a Tuareg city as such, but an isolated entrepot packed full of Hausa, Maghrebi and Songhai and later Sokoto merchants. The Tuareg in general were employed to guard, guide and provide the mounts that allowed the great slave caravans to cross the Sahara. According to their own traditions the actual slave raids and slave round-ups were made by the powerful states to the south and not organised by their own Sultans. There were obviously individual exceptions. Indeed Akly whilst travelling through Libya spoke by chance to some Hausa speakers labouring away in the palmery gardens of the oasis of Ghadames. The labourer recalled how his great grandfather had been kidnapped as a small child by a band of Tuareg. Akly asked him if he was certain that they had not been Tebu. The worker laughed back, �No we know the difference all right, the Tebu women have nose rings, the Tebu men are black not white like you Tuareg, they wear black turbans and are divided between the rival Tada and Daza clans� �and anyway he continued, �my great grandfather survived as a slave of the Tuareg to become an old man surrounded by his children, while with the Tebu�who knows how long you have?�

It was dark by the time we reached the oasis of Timia but with all hands fully engaged, we soon pitched a camp within the garden compound of a well managed orchard and got the drinks table out in record time. There was also some ice still left to chill the Ricard or two.

It was only by climbing a steep hill in the morning which overlooked the wadhi bed that we could work out the lie of the land. Timia is a gem of an oasis, a well watered valley, fringed by mountains. It brought to my mind some of the more isolated reaches of the Southern Anti Atlas in Morocco. Here however they grew maize, tangerines, grenadines and some millet, though the few palms did not produce good dates. Timia is an oasis of fertility and calm in the south-centre of the Air mountains with the gravel-bed of the wadhi floor punctured by wells. It supports a population of around 9,000 and we met many of the vociferous young students (250 I was told) who are packed into the village school. A happy morning was spent walking through the gardens, and inspecting the earth-built houses before we climbed upto Fort Massu. This dramatic outpost of the French Foreign legion looks like a medieaval fortification though it only dates back to 1952. It has just been restored by a generous grant from general Massu (the old pied noir hero who won the first bloody round of fighting in the Algerian War for Indepencence) so it now has a new life as a B&B equipped with an observatory, a viewing terrace and a cosy inside dining room.

Then packed back into our jeeps we were driven off to a swimming hole, a small but wonderful little plunge pool held back by a natural damn of gravel and fed by two trickling water falls. Some women were washing but their brood of boys joined us for a swim and a diving competition into the deep clear water. Afterwards we picnicked under the shade of an acacia tree and bargained with a group of smiths who patiently wait for a little passing business.

Then the long mountain track to Agadez beckoned. That night we dined again on the roof terrace of Akly and Celine�s near perfect Auberge, looking out over their city and then when the lights dwindled � the stars. Here I met their other children but their youngest son, Marwane, had by now become a firm friend. He had travelled across the Air mountains with us, jumping from jeep to jeep, to spend time with either his mother and father. Half French, half Tuareg, he was a living ambassador of good will. Prepared to climb up mountains with an Englishman looking at dull old stone cains, but equally prepared to make play-mates with any band of nomadic Tuareg children that we came across. I hope he will have as many stories as his father to tell, or perhaps I should wish him a few less. Akly�s childhood in Bilma and his tales of what befell his Tebu schoolfriends would make a quite compelling and disturbing novella. I plan to go back. You always know when you have had a good travel, for instead of ticking something off with a dismisive �been there, seen that� you find a hundred other doors have opened up to beckon you onwards.

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